Trading Down: Mythology Inflected Romp Has Nothing on Harryhausen

City Pulse | February 8, 2010
Trading Down

Mythology Inflected Romp Has Nothing on Harryhausen

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightening Thief (Three Stars) (607 words)

By Cole Smithey

Aside from some non-PG-rated emphasis on an abusive home life and a lot of underwhelming CGI, "Percy Jackson" is a well-paced kids' action picture that flirts with Greek mythology to create its otherworldly spectacle. Rising child star Logan Lerman plays Percy, a Manhattan teenager living with his mom Sally (Catherine Keener) and her less-than-desirable boyfriend Gabe (Joe Pantoliano). During a school trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art Percy discovers that he is the demi-god son of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd). It seems that the Lord of the Seas had a fling with Percy's mortal mother. Someone has made off with the lightening rod that Zeus uses to control the heavens. Needless to say, the King of Olympus is plenty steamed about it. Believing Percy to be the thief, Zeus dictates that the bolt must be returned before the approaching solstice if an apocalyptic war with Hades (Steve Coogan) is to be avoided. Percy's wheelchair-bound teacher Chiron (Pierce Brosnan) accompanies him to a camp for demi-gods where Percy hones his fighting skills. With fellow demi-gods Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena, and his half-goat protector Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) Percy sets off to rescue his kidnapped mother from Hades and return Zeus's purloined lightening rod. Uma Thurman makes the most of her limited screen time as a sunglass-wearing Medusa who takes off the shades when visitors are around. The gorgon with snakes for hair performs her famous trick--turning anyone who gazes upon her to stone before Percy and his heavenly-blessed pals make their way to Hades' hellish hole.

Director Chris Columbus and his crew take a literal approach to spectacle that denies the magnificent use of weirdness and scale that famed stop-action animator Ray Harryhausen brought to such myth-inspired classics as "Jason and the Argonauts" (1963) and "Clash of the Titans" (1981). To think that child audiences in 1963 had a far more earth-shattering theater experience than today's young viewers will have with "Percy Jackson" speaks to the effect that "Harry Potter" films have had on reconfiguring what is expected of this kind of picture. It doesn't help that Chris Columbus directed "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (2001) and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" (2002) because it affords him the liberty of repurposing ideas and techniques he learned on those films, rather than thinking anew about how a modern movie with mythological characters should look and feel. It's an outsized magical framework where action scenes should progress to maximize their dramatic potential, and then go even farther to dwarf humanity's tiny imprint on the cosmos. If you've got Neptune in your movie, then there had better be a scene of an inky, cold, vast ocean surface being broken by Poseidon's trident before giving way to the colossal king of the seas. The same goes for the multi-headed Hydra whose snakelike necks should blossom with hundreds of new heads, rather than two, when one is severed by Percy's sword during a fierce battle.

The Hollywood rumor mill has been abuzz with news that the "Spider-Man" franchise is about to be rebooted with Logan Lerman pushing out Tobey Maguire as the web-weaving crime-fighter. The consumerist logic of throwing out the old to usher in an inferior replacement is a knee-jerk way of thinking that is every bit as destructive when it's applied to movies. "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightening Thief" is a fair movie, but it's no "Jason and the Argonauts."

(20th Century Fox) Rated PG. 120 mins. (B-) (Three Stars)

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